A few days later, a crate of kosher food arrived for the Jewish girls. Each girl got a small packet of smoked fish, pickled onions, bread and sweets biscuits. Delia assumed it was the doing of Miss Morrison. When she tried to thank the social worker, however, Miss Morrison denied any responsibility. “It was sent by a Mr. Benjamin Cohen of Cherry Street. Apparently he’s very influential. He wrote to the superintendent saying that he was very concerned about the Jewish girls on Blackwell’s Island.”
“Benjamin Cohen? Cherry Street?”
“You know him?”
“He is --” She almost said, ‘my cousin’ but stopped. “He is a person, yes.”
“Just a person?” Miss Morrison furrowed her brow.
“That is what we say when somebody is somebody. A person among people.”
“They say,” Miss Morrison dropped her voice. “He is on intimate terms with an associate of the chief of police.”
“Perhaps.” Delia thought it over. Perhaps it was only a rumor. Or maybe Ben really did know Pamela’s father these days. And if that were the case, he could convince Pamela's father to tell the judge to set her free. Joy surged through Delia, but she didn’t show it. Instead, she continued to wipe the floor with steady, diligent attention. She was not going to be hysterical. She had heard that once the doctors labeled a a girl hysterical, they could keep her on Blackwell's Island as long as they wanted. Maybe forever.
She knew the girls were watched constantly for any sign of hysteria. If you acted too happy or too sad, if you laughed too long, wept too often, talked out of turn or didn’t speak when spoken to, you might be hysterical. If you argued, asked questions, refused to eat, or were caught with hidden food, you were hysterical. You were hysterical if you moved too fast or lagged behind too slow, if you tried to sleep late, or woke screaming from nightmare dreams, if you were terrified of every little sound, or not frightened of anything. Yes, many girls on Blackwell’s Island were hysterical. And after the water treatment they were certainly cured. No one would allow herself to be hysterical after that.
Free. She mouthed the word but didn’t dare say it out loud. Perhaps soon she would be free. Home to my people and be free...
Days passed, each the same. She scrubbed obediently until she was soaking wet and her hands and knees were forever wrinkled. Other Jewish girls were released, but not Delia.
Finally, Lilly’s sentence was up too. At the last minute, Lilly threatened to do something to make them keep her there. She would toss a bucket of water at a matron or upend a laundry tub.
“No.” Delia shook her by the shoulders, terrified Lilly would not listen. “Do not even think of it.”
“Why?” Lilly looked straight at her. “I am not afraid. Whatever they do to you and the other girls they can do to me.”
Delia turned her face away.
“I will fight like three lions.”
“You can’t fight. Not here.” Delia kept pushing the wet cloth across the floor and refused to say anything more. It was not the just the threat of the water treatment that terrified her. It was the loneliness. She had never felt more alone in her life than she had in that gray tiled room and prayed she never would again. The physical pain was only the beginning of the terror, like a trap door that opened beneath you sent you down into a darkness that seemed to have no end. A place where you might scream till your voice was broken and never once be heard. She knew now what it was like to feel absolutely and utterly alone. So alone you wondered if you were still alive.
After Lilly left, her days seemed gray and without change. Scrub and rinse, rinse and scrub. Had she been forgotten completely?
One afternoon, a matron she had never seen before, took her by the elbow and steered her into a small, bare room with only a bench against the wall. Her legs almost collapsed beneath her. What had she done now? Would her words be twisted and thrown back at her again?
“Well.” The matron pointed to Delia. “Take ‘em off.”
Delia clutched the top of her dress. Fight, she said to herself. This time she would fight. Like a dozen demons. Like a lion.
“Well you can’t take it back with you,” the matron said,,
“What do you think? We’re giving dresses away?”
She tossed a muslin sack at Delia’s feet. “Brenner? Right?”
“Those are yours.”
Delia reached into the sack. There was her blouse, ripped under the arm and stained on the elbows, her skirt with the sagging hem that she had let out twice in the past two years, the patched stockings, mended underclothes, and most of all the boots whose heels were worn from the streets of the Lower East Side. She sat on the floor, running her fingers along the grit on the soles, weeping, convulsed with sobs, until she felt almost too weak to lift her arms.
The matron just stood there with her hands on her hips, shaking her head. “You’re supposed to cry when you get here not when you leave You're as crazy as that lady social worker says you are. But someone got yer sentence shortened for you. Get a move on it, the boat’s leavin’ in half an hour.”
The matron left her alone. Delia let the workhouse garments fall from her. For an instant she wanted to cower in a corner, to pull her own clothes back on in a rush. She didn’t. She dressed herself slowly, pulling each article on clothing on carefully. Drawers, corset, chemise, stockings. Her flesh almost shrank from her own fingers. She was turning back into herself again, she reminded herself. The girl in the tiled room would cease to exist. She would never have to think of Blackwell’s Island again.
The trip back to New York seemed far shorter than the one that took her away. Blackwell’s Island was not so distant from her home, after all, she realized as the boat neared the Fulton Street docks. Yet in other ways, it was like the other side of the world. She looked back towards the island but could only make out a dim shadow against the dark sky. She shuddered. It was a place she never wished to visit again. She knew its shadow would always be with her, though, every time she looked over her shoulder.
The ferry docked with a bump. There was no familiar face waiting for her, for she had no way of sending word ahead. It was just as well, she sighed. Perhaps she was better off alone. She didn’t want to talk about Blackwell’s Island. Not now. As soon as she disembarked and made her way up from the Fulton docks, she was just another girl from the lower East Side heading home on a cold November night.
The streets were packed. That was nothing unusual. But tonight they were all headed in one direction. All around her voices murmured and buzzed with some mysterious excitement. Delia felt lost and dazed, as if she had been locked away for a hundred years. What was going on tonight?
“Where do you go?” She stopped a group of girls who seemed in a tremendous hurry.
“Where?” One of them looked at her with the mixture of pity and irritation New Yorkers usually reserved for the most ignorant of greenhorns. “To the meeting of course.”
“What meeting?” Her question was lost to them as they hurried on. Unsure of where to go, Delia let the crowd carry her along. She had never seen so many people together since the rent strike and that was nearly three years ago.
She turned at the sound of her name, almost amazed that anyone might remember her.
“Jake!” Of course, it was Jake. There he on his was his corner, right on East Broadway and Orchard. She was so glad to hear his familiar voice, she flung herself upon him, wrapping her arms around him and knocking the papers from his hand.
“Delie?” He grasped her shoulders, staring at her as if she were a ghost. “That you?”
“I’m...I’m sorry.” Suddenly embarrassed, she bent down and started gathering up the papers.
“Ain’t nothing.” He bent down too. The crowd parted around them like a great river and continued its march northward.
“Meeting Tonight, November 22 at Clinton Hall, Cooper Union.” She read the bold headlines across the top of the page. “Called by American Federation of Labor and the Ladies Garment Workers Union. General Meeting for the Purpose of Declaring a General Strike.” Jake wasn’t selling the Forward, he was giving out flyers for the union. The headline was followed by a list of speakers and a long agenda of points to debate.
“General Strike!” He stood up and began to thrust a paper into the hand of everyone who passed by. “They’re calling for a General Strike tonight!”
She seized a handful and started to give them out too. “Why tonight?” she asked him. What had happened while she had been locked away? “Why do they call for a general strike tonight?”
“It was because of you.”
“Well you and all the girls who were sent off to Blackwell’s Island. That was the limit. That was all anybody could talk about on the Lower East Side. The bosses were sending our girls to prison, like standing up for your rights is a crime. Something had to be done.”
Delia was amazed. She only wanted to put Blackwell’s Island behind her. To never speak of it. She had thought that others might look down on her for having been there. Now Jake was telling her something completely different.
“That’s why you’re working for the union now?” she asked.
“Nah.” Now it was his turn act embarrassed. “I mean just for tonight that’s all. The stuff about wages and hours and union shops, you know that’s not my line. But when you didn’t come back, I guess I....I mean, everyone was afraid that you were... that you... were ...well that you weren’t coming back no more. General strike!” He waved the flyer even more vigorously. “General strike!” His voice was hoarse. “I guess couldn’t just sit around doing nothing.”
“Jake.” She leaned over and kissed him . “Dank. Dank maysh ztye.” Thank-you.
He turned red. “Ah, go on,” he muttered, taking the flyers from her hand. “You’ll be late for yer meeting.’”
“Dank.” She called over her shoulder as she started to run, darting through gaps in the crowd.
From all directions, she saw people converging on the great hall in Union Square. They came from the nicer homes on Hester, Delancey, East Houston, and Grand Street, and from the poorest tenements on Rivington, Ludlow, Clinton and Pitt Streets. They were waist-makers, felt cutters, hat blockers, sleeve setters, hemmers, trimmers and button hole finishers. They made knee pants, trousers, vests, jackets, pinafores, spring dresses, summer blouses, and winter coats,. Anything that could be worn, fancy or plain, was sewn by their hands. And here they all were, she realized. At one meeting, at last.
The crowd outside the great door had grown so dense by the time she arrived that Delia could not get into Clinton Hall A harried usher directed the overflow to nearby rooms where, he told them, runners would carry news from the main hall to the late comers so everyone would know what was said.
“No.” Delia refused to leave. She didn’t want to be in the other room. It would no better than standing outside on the stairs. “I come here straight from Blackwell’s Island,” she told him. “Straight from prison to this meeting.” Even in the chaos, a little well of silence fell around her. People stared. For an instant she felt she was still wearing the baggy workhouse dress. They eyed her with curious respect, as if expecting to see something, some mark, some sign on her face. She looked back, her head high. “Nu? I didn’t die on Blackwell’s Island.” Maybe she had wanted to, once, but she would never say it. She didn’t die. She was here. “Abi meleibt,” she said. At least I am alive.
“Alive,” the people around her repeated. The young man at the door let her pass.
Once inside, she squeezed into a vacant place along the wall. If she stretched her neck enough, she could just catch of glimpse of the stage. To her surprise she caught sight of Estelle, standing a short distance away. Delia had never known her to attend meetings. Estelle didn’t mix much with anyone from the shops after work. Yet she was here now with all the rest, elegant, solitary and inscrutable as ever.
She began to scan the crowd for other familiar faces. There was Molly, Josie and a whole crew of girls from Madame Bloomberg’s seated in the back rows. She waved and shouted out their names, but they couldn’t hear her. Lilly must be somewhere in the hall, too.
“Little Twig!” Bessie waved and blew her a kiss from the high seats in the balcony.
For an instant Delia was sure she saw Mama sitting beside Bessie. “Mama!” she called out. It wasn’t Mama. Delia kept looking but didn’t see her. Mama was probably too busy at home taking care of everyone to come to a meeting. Delia turned her face back to the stage.
“Ladies, gentlemen...ladies, ladies...” Joseph Barondess, the chairman, called the meeting to order over and over. The din was great no one could hear a word that was said on the stage.
The audience lowered its collective voice to an impatient murmur.
A long row speakers sat behind Mr. Barondess, all of them men. The first to the podium was Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation Labor, and perhaps the most famous union man in all the United States. The cheering that greeted his name brought a half a dozen calls for order again. If anyone could declare a general strike, if anyone could bring thousands of workers onto the street, it was Samuel Gompers.
He waited until they were quiet. A strike so late in the year, when winter had already set in, was not to be undertaken lightly, he told them. It was easier to strike during the summer and if they waited they would have nearly a whole year to prepare.
A year? “Strike! A general strike!” Here and there girls called out angrily.
The union had no treasury to support such a strike, he reminded them. It was not yet a strong union.
Not strong? Delia looked around. Didn’t he have eyes to see? Would they have come out on a winter night, many without supper, without warm coats, and some even against the wishes of their families, if they were not strong?
Speaker after speaker said the same thing. “Do not strike hastily. Wait. Stand together, yes. But do not be rash in your actions.”
So they had come for nothing after all, Delia thought wearily “The union calls us here for a strike, then tells us to wait.” There would be no general strike tonight. Perhaps not ever. She had been hearing about the general strike ever since she was a child. The General Strike. It was like a fairy story. Like Evangeline or The Count of Monte Cristo or maybe a book by Jules Verne. Something that might happen some day, but never today. Someday every girl on the Lower East Side would leave her machine and go out onto the street. All of them together, at once. They would fill the streets by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. And then...And then? No one knew, because it never seemed to happen.
People began to drift towards the exits. Delia searched out her friends. They would argue it out among themselves in the cafes, the way they usually did.
“I am a working girl!” A voice rang out from the stage. “I am a working girl. One of those on strike against intolerable conditions.”
They paused and jostled one another trying to get a look. The speaker was tiny. Even with her pile of thick dark hair, she was barely taller than a child. Not even as big as Pamela. But her voice filled the hall. “I am tired of those who talk in vague terms.”
The audience nodded in agreement.
“What we are her for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike.”
“Who is she?” Delia plucked on sleeves asking everyone around her until she got an answer. The girl was Clara Lemlich. Though she looked like a child, she was actually twenty-three years old. A grown woman and an experienced public speaker, they said, who had led strikes in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. She been beaten and arrested and returned to the picket lines again and again. She had offered to make a speech earlier in the evening, but the organizers of the meeting had brushed her aside. Not used to such treatment, she had mounted the stage uninvited and made herself heard.
“I move that a general strike be declared.” Clara Lemlich paused and drew a deep breath.
Delia admired how she held the crowd, how she drew them to her. Every eye was glued to her smallest gesture and every ear hung upon her least word. “Now.”
That was it. Pandemonium broke loose.
People began to wave handkerchiefs, hats, walking canes, whatever was in their hands. They seized one another in their arms, clapping, stamping, and dancing in the aisles.
The chairman tried to regain order. “Do we have someone to second the motion?”
Second the motion? They were ready to second the motion with their feet. To second it in the streets. “We have been waiting all their lives to second such a motion,” someone called out. Every hand went up. Silence fell. “If I turn traitor to the causes I now pledge may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.”
The general strike had finally begun.
Like many Americans I am the descendant of immigrants. I have always been fascinated by their stories. I hope you enjoy reading about Delia and her adventures growing up on the Lower East Side. If you want to learn more about the historical background, please take a look at the About and Resources sections. If you want to learn more about my other books for children and young adults visit my website.
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